Food Industry In The UK Starting To Embrace Robotics

British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) report points to a recent acceleration in the deployment of robotics by UK food manufacturers, revealing a 60% increase in food sector adoption in 2013 compared to 2000.

An article written in by the President of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) Dr. Shinsuke Sakakibara, expresses optimism for upcoming growth saying, "the robotics industry is looking into a bright future. The IFR Statistical Department expects that between 2014 and 2016 worldwide robot sales will increase by about 6% on average per year, and cites industry experts who attribute it to three key factors - factory modernization, increases in production capacity and rising demand from a number of emerging markets.

“The latest IFR World Robotics Industrial Robots 2013 Report illustrates that Europe is still lagging behind Asia, where sales of robots were more than double Europe’s 2012 figure of 41,200," said Grant Collier at BARA. Japan alone sold more than 28,700 units in 2012, but across all sectors in the UK, the number of robot transactions in 2012 grew."

Engagement in robotics and momentum really began to pick up in 2010, when members of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA), with support from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), commissioned an industry study. Having polled a broad spectrum of manufacturers in Spain, Germany, Sweden and the UK, the study concluded that the main reasons for UK manufacturers’ investment reluctance in modern manufacturing technologies linked to lack of knowledge, skills and confidence.

Responding to these recommendations, the British government initiated the Automating Manufacturing Programme. They put £600k on the table, giving BARA the funds to engage with UK manufacturers and provide impartial advice on the implementation of automation solutions. The program ran for 18 months, attracting the interest of 366 companies, who took up the free operational audit followed by implementation support. Approximately 40% of those came from the food sector. BARA’s 2013 sales statistics now reveals a 60% uplift of robotic adoption in the food industry, indicating that confidence is at an all-time high.

On the frontline, FANUC UK Managing Director Chris Sumner is also noticing a marked increase in uptake. “While high speed, accurate and agile systems are all key benefits of a pick and place robot, the most recent demands from producers relate to food safety and the use of robots to improve hygiene during the manufacturing process,” says Chris. “Although IP67K certified robots have been commonplace for many years, the very nature of a robot arm, with its many crevices and less durable construction materials, has in the past prevented it from working in harsh food environments.” FANUC is one of the few suppliers in the marketplace right now that has an IP69K certified system. Its new M-2iA delta style assembly robot is capable of operating in high-pressure, high-temperature wash-down environments, meeting individual Retailer Codes of Practice (COP) and the latest hygiene and product line integrity requirements set out by the British Retail Consortium.

Nowadays, robotic food systems are faster, and more compact and affordable. They have brains, often referred to as controllers, which can manage up to four robot arms from a single CPU, to improve production efficiencies. Some also have vision systems, which food manufacturers are realising is of great benefit, as the robot can mirror the hand-eye coordination of a human and accurately pick random products off a moving conveyor, reducing waste and leading to higher production efficiencies. FANUC have integrated their iRVision into the controller, which means manufacturers don’t need to invest in additional resources, such as third-party software or an external PC.  Vision technologies like this also enable food companies to incorporate features such as visual line tracking and barcode reading into their robotic setups.

The latest generation of pick and place robots often contain fewer moving parts - 20% in FANUC’s case. This has also contributed to the fall in prices, enabling manufacturers to recoup their outlay, often within 12 months. When you start crunching the numbers and consider that the lifespan of a FANUC robot is typically 25 years, it is an attractive return on investment. What’s more, because robotic systems can easily be updated with new software and a selection of different end effectors depending on the task, its occupation can be quickly changed to keep pace with packaging trends and product brand developments.

Workforce injuries caused by performing arduous and often repetitive tasks, often in cold environments, is another common issue that robots help to eliminate. Equipped with sanitized grippers and vision systems, robots provide improved placement and product integrity. By removing the human element, manufacturers can significantly reduce workforce ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. Furthermore, in upstream processing, such as operating directly on animal carcasses, a robot can deliver consistent and concise cuts and won’t suffer from fatigue or lose concentration, which again significantly reduces accidental injuries.

How robots affect workforce moral and the number of jobs available on production lines has been another sticking point for some.  IFR General Secretary Gudrun Litzenberger comments: “Productivity and competitiveness are indispensable for a manufacturing enterprise to be successful in the global market ... and whilst certain jobs may be reduced by robotics and automation... more are created.” In fact, the latest study by the International Federation of Robotics forecasts that two million jobs will be created globally in the next eight years because of the robotics industry***. What’s more, this study predicts that between 60,000 and 80,000 new activity jobs will be created in the food industry alone from 2012 to 2016.

Chris adds: “Re-training staff to operate robots, not only increases a worker’s skill set, it creates renewed vigor. It certainly provides a greater sense of job satisfaction, compared to completing the same task manually.” As with many UK companies, FANUC continually invests in future skills and is tackling the skills shortages in the engineering and manufacturing sectors identified by City & Guilds in 2013. The company offers an apprentice and degree student ‘sandwich year’ program and recently welcome four more young people. Several of their earlier apprentices have progressed internally - Michelle Bottrill was FANUC’s first and is now their Parts, Training and Service Sales Manager. 

While it has been on the radar for several decades now, it appears that the sector is really starting to warm up to the idea of robots in food manufacturing. Looking at this wider picture, it is clear that the intelligent deployment of automation can increase safety processes and decrease the chances of downtime or production shortfall. “Without robotics, it would be impossible to keep production and products in the food industry at a continuously high level,” concludes Chris. 

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